“The Night Ocean” by Paul LaFarge— Secrets and Scandals

LaFarge, Paul. “The Night Ocean”, Penguin Press, 2017.

Secrets and Scandals

Amos Lassen

Paul LaFarge’s novel “The Night Ocean” is inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and his friends and is about secrets and scandals,  psychiatry and pulp fiction. Marina Willett, a doctor is dealing with the fact that her husband, Charlie, has become obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft, in particular with one episode in the legendary horror writer’s life—- the summer of 1934, when the “old gent” lived for two months with a gay teenage fan named Robert Barlow, at Barlow’s family home in central Florida. Charlie really wants to know what went on between the two and just as Charlie thinks he has the answer, another scandal takes place and he disappears. The police think that Charlie committed suicide while Marina, who is a psychiatrist, believes otherwise.

We follow the lives of Lovecraft, the most influential American horror writer of the 20th century, whose stories continue to win new readers even though he has been criticized for his racist views Barlow, a scholar of Mexican culture who killed himself after being blackmailed for his homosexuality (and who collaborated with Lovecraft on the beautiful story “The Night Ocean”); his student, writer William S. Burroughs; and L.C. Spinks, a Canadian appliance salesman and science-fiction fan who is the only person who knows the origins of “The Erotonomicon” which is considered to be the intimate diary of Lovecraft .

Marina follows her missing husband’s trail as she tries to learn the truth and the story spans decades and the length of the continent moving from a remote Ontario town, through New York and Florida to Mexico City. It is centered on one incident in Lovecraft’s life and the finding out of what really happened then three decades later. Lovecraft was then 44 and left Massachusetts and moved to Florida to live for two months with a sixteen-year-old Robert Barlow. Three years later, Lovecraft died. Later yet, Barlow became a noted anthropologist, teaching and working in Mexico. And a man named L. C. Spinks put up for sale a book called “The Erotonomicon”, which purported to be Lovecraft’s journal and filled in all the blanks on his sex life and how he sublimated the terms for it into Chulthu talk. To say much more but I can say that it is about truth and fiction and how we hide themselves from others. I have no idea how much of this is based on fact but that really makes no difference if you are looking for a fun read that makes you think.

The relationship between H. P. Lovecraft and the young Robert H. Barlow resulted in the short story “The Ocean Night” and LaFarge slides from history to fiction retelling the story. On the surface this is about Lovecraft’s secrets yet it also tells about the dark power of stories and how this affects our belief in reality. The story reads like a crime novel with a plot that has many twists and turns. It also about the horror of the unknowable—the knowledge that can affect our sanity and make us question reality.

Marina is our guide and is an outsider witnessing her husband’s strange obsession. Charlie was desperately wanting to understand what transpired between Lovecraft and Barrow.. Once Charlie vanishes, Marina loses her rational distance from the events and absorbs her missing husband’s obsession begins her own interrogation of the past. Whether there are resolutions or not, you can only find out by reading this book.


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